Chris Froome: 'You have to go beyond rationality'
The rider tells Kevin Garside how he broke through the pain barrier this year to claim Tour de France victory and how it's changed his life – and ruined his shopping trips
Before you cast that vote for Andy Murray in Sunday's sports personality pageant, consider this. It is stage 15. Chris Froome is leading the Tour de France. He is knackered. More than 200km (125 miles) of French asphalt are already behind him. That was the easy bit. He looks over his handlebars and sees the Beast of Provence, Mont Ventoux, winking at him in the manner of a Seventies football hooligan; come and have a go if you think you're hard enough.
The loading is about to start. The legs have gone, his energy reserves are shot, and there are still 21km to go. And not just any old kilometres, arguably the hardest yards in cycling, a stretch that in 1967 cost another Englishman, Tom Simpson, his life.
It is one of the great sporting parlour debates; which sport asks the most of its participants? I recall James Cracknell explaining how in Olympic rowing finals the four in the boat are asked to row beyond endurance, to drain from their extremities, from hair follicles and fingernails, any source of strength they might have left to help propel them across that line.
The race is 2,000 metres long, and the effort is split four ways. That is not to write down the achievement but to talk up the inhumane demands on Froome that day in July.
On the first mountain stage of the 2013 tour, Ax 3 Domaines in the Pyrenees, Froome took more than a minute out of hard-boiled climber Alejandro Valverde and almost two out of Alberto Contador to establish early hegemony. The Provençal peak is where he rammed the blade home.
"The Ventoux stage sent a particularly strong message to my rivals," says Froome. "I was already in the yellow jersey so I think they were expecting me to ride in a very defensive manner, trying to minimise any losses, if there were any, and follow them. When I went on the offensive there and took the race on for myself, started opening up the advantage I already had, I think that sent the message, 'You guys are racing for second place already'. It was a risk. I ran the risk of going out too hard, blowing up and losing time. It is a very big mental challenge as much as it is physical. There is a very big mental battle going on there."
That is how Froome reflected on his defining stage win. This was the view in real time. "You have to go beyond any kind of rationality. You are absolutely shattered getting to the bottom of a climb after a 200km stage. When you are racing up, everything is empty and you have to find the energy to climb the last few kilometres. It is full-on gruelling. The big thing I keep telling myself is, 'OK, if you are feeling terrible, feeling horrible with nothing left and needing to get off the bike and stop, I'm sure the other guys around me are going to be feeling just as bad. You have trained for it, you are ready for it, so keep going.' That's all I can tell myself.
"In those mountains, for me, personally, when you are in the moment, there can be a hundred things on your mind. As well as managing the other riders and thinking tactically how you are going to play it out, the crowd are all over the road in front of you. You are thinking, who is going to step out in front of you, which drunken spectator is not going to get out of the way, all sorts of things really. It is pretty full-on up there."
Monaco is not an obvious host to the mundane, or to shops as we understand them. But it is there, among the aisles and sporting exiles resident on the rocky Mediterranean outcrop, where a sense of order has eventually returned to the life of Britain's second winner of the Tour de France.
"Monaco is a bit of a strange place in many respects. I'm a bit of an introvert when it comes to some aspects of Monaco life. I'm not out there in the casinos or driving fancy cars or anything like that. I keep my head down and pretty much use it as a fantastic training location and to be close to a lot of my team-mates.
"It was only when I went home to a normal life, going to the supermarket to get my groceries and things like that, that I began to understand and process what I had achieved. People would stop me in every aisle, congratulating me or wanting a photo or autograph, stuff like that. It is only then that it starts to sink in.
"I can understand why people are recognising me a lot more. But it definitely does feel a bit foreign to me. I still feel that I'm the same person so why would anything change? But it says a lot about where our sport is going , how much it has grown in the last four or five years in the UK."
Indeed. We even have a super, soapy, soaraway rivalry worthy of EastEnders. All that is missing is the punch thrown across the Queen Vic bar when Phil isn't watching.
The mutual loathing between Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins was never quite how it is portrayed, according to Froome, and after a tête à tête last week in Majorca, the winter training camp of Team Sky, the pair reached an accommodation. The rupture in relations goes back to the 2012 Tour when Froome misjudged an attack on the 11th Stage at the summit of La Toussuire. Though he came back to Wiggins when he realised his error, the damage was done.
Wiggins delayed for 15 months the payment to Froome of his share of the prize-money that is traditionally spread among team-mates. All water under the bridge. "We are different kinds of characters. Our relationship has been played up a lot in the media, but there is not much to it. At the end of the day we have a job to do and we will get along and do it," Froome said.
Froome had already moved on, establishing his own territory in the cycle firmament beyond the reach of Sir Bradley. Whether that endears him to the nation in quite the same way is another question. Not that Froome requires our sanction to validate himself. For him it really is all about the bike. "Pro cycling is a bit of a strange thing but addictive in many ways, the freedom that it gives you, that feeling of being able to express yourself, being close to nature training every day. It is something quite special.
"I'm going to keep doing it as long as I can, until my body says that's enough. As long as I have that motivation to keep doing the Tour de France, challenging for the top spot, I'm going to keep doing it. Riders do go on until their forties."
Froome is only 28. A scream echoes through the Alps. He is not expecting the gaze of the BBC audience to fall upon him. It is enough that he is there at all, mingling with the kind of sporting deity he never imagined he might become a decade ago when he was taking spin classes in Johannesburg to make ends meet as an economics undergraduate. "It would be incredible to win the sports award, a dream end to the season, but looking at the competition I'm not even thinking about that. It's great to be on that stage. I'm just grateful for the year that I have had.
"One of the things I have to keep reminding people about is that it is something really extraordinary to have a British victory at the Tour de France two years successively, given that in the previous 100 years we have not had one. I think people get lulled into a false sense that this is easy, but it is certainly far from that. I would love to go back next year and do it again. There is a chance that could happen.
"I did get the better of my competition this year and they will be back with a vengeance, training harder than ever to take me on again. I'm going to have to rise to that. It's going to be a big challenge."
The big prize: The day I met Mandela
"I went to school in South Africa and was fortunate to meet Nelson Mandela at a school function.
He is obviously a huge icon, who drastically changed the path of the country and of the people. South Africa is a special place with a complicated history, tribally as well as racially.
I had to get up on stage and shake his hand. It was an end-of-year function and I was being presented with an award. I can't remember exactly what the award was, something related to cycling.
It is certainly something to say you shook the hand of one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century."
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